The art of reverse delegation
Is your manager a bad delegator? Don’t complain. Don’t gnash your teeth in frustration. And above all, don’t fail at the assignment. Just delegate in reverse.
Business bookshelves are filled with techniques for managing and leading better. Help for employees whose bosses don’t read this advice … and would blow it of as unimportant if they did … is harder to find.
There are, for example, lots of sources of information on how to delegate well. As delegation is the responsibility that defines management, you’d expect every manager in the world to be pretty good at it. You’d expect wrong.
How it’s supposed to happen: Your manager is clear about the assignment, and its deliverables. Your deadline and time budget come from a plan you develop and your manager reviews.
And, you meet every week to discuss progress, any issues that arise, and any help you might need.
How it often does happen: A manager sends his/her victim a one-to-two sentence email.
That’s it. No clarity, no approved plan, no support. It’s assign-and-ignore delegation. Oh, and these managers are the ones who chew out employees whose results miss the undefined deadline, target, or both.
So imagine your manager tells you, via email, to “Write a BYOD policy for us.”
Close your eyes and imagine a sandy beach. No, not your happy place. Guadalcanal. As pleasant as the expanse of sand and ocean looks, it has lots and lots of landmines.
To avoid them, take charge. Just because your manager doesn’t know how to delegate, it doesn’t mean you don’t know how to get delegated to.
Step 1: Force a meeting. Use your company’s calendar system to schedule a half-hour meeting. No more. A half hour is hard to turn down.
You actually reserve two half-hour time slots, by the way — the second one a week after the first. We’ll get to why in a minute.
(If your manager turns down your meeting request, you’ll have to handle what follows by email. Document your understandings, adding the phrase, “Unless I hear otherwise from you by <date>, I’ll operate under this understanding:” followed by your assumptions. Yes, it’s a CYK (cover your keister) play. Sometimes that’s what you have to do.
Most managers, though, will meet at least once if you force the issue and don’t ask for too much time. Make the most of it.
Step 2: Run the meeting. Minor point: Don’t bring a printed agenda. A bad delegator will probably interpret one as a sure sign you’re a plodding bureaucrat. Plan the meeting, sure. But don’t print the plan.
Start by clarifying scope. In our BYOD example, that mostly means listing the technologies it’s to include and exclude: Smartphones? Yes. Tablets? Yes. Laptops? No — no employee laptops. How about software and apps? Yes. Services like web conferencing? Uh … I guess. Consumer cloud-based storage and information sharing? How’s that again? Dropbox and Skydrive. Oh. What do you think?
Turning a blank sheet of paper into a multiple-choice and true/false test makes defining the assignment clearly much easier, and it enhances your image as someone who can bring clarity out of chaos.
You have one more scope topic: Your work product. Here, use the pro-active scope creep ploy.
To use the ploy, try adding a second deliverable to the obvious one (the written policy).
You might, for example, ask if you’re also supposed to prepare a presentation to explaining the policy. Whether your boss says yes or no, you’ve successfully fixed the list of work products, preventing your boss adding another one the day before the deadline.
Step 3: Stall
By now, your half hour should be over. You want it to be over. That lets you propose taking a week to put a plan together, to be reviewed in that second half-hour meeting you had the foresight to schedule.
Step 4: Get approval for your plan. In the second meeting, sketch out your approach, your time budget, and the due date you can commit to. And, recommend ways for dealing with the other work that won’t get done because you can’t just add this assignment to your already heavy workload and do a decent job.
And, ask for ten minutes each week to review your progress and make any course corrections that turn out to be necessary. Weekly review meetings make the difference between an assignment tossed over a cubicle wall and actual, responsible delegation.
Congratulations. Some employees with unskilled managers are victims. Not you. Even better, you’ve done what every great employee learns to do: You’ve made your boss a better manager.
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